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Presidio County declares emergency in Shafter as residents weigh future of water supply

Lorne Matalon
A sign welcomes visitors to Shafter, Texas.

Presidio County officials on Wednesday approved an emergency declaration for the small town of Shafter as concerns swirl over the future of the town’s drinking water supply.

The move was a preemptive measure enabling local officials to ask the state for help if needed. Shafter residents do currently have access to drinking water, but an ongoing boil water notice and a pump house fire in 2021 that temporarily cut off the town’s water supply have prompted concerns about the long-term reliability of the town’s water.

“A declaration of emergency prepares us to be able to go to the state if we need any resources,” Presidio County Judge Joe Portillo said at a county commissioners meeting Wednesday. “Everything looks pretty stable now, but it could change from one day to the next.”

Though the emergency declaration was initially meant to address the situation in Shafter, officials worded the final document in a way that gives them flexibility to ask for state help with water systems in other unincorporated communities like Redford, which was also recently placed under a boil water notice.

Since the mid-1990s, a silver mine located across the highway from Shafter has provided the town’s residents with drinking water from a single well, free of charge.

That arrangement continues today, but recent events — a fire that temporarily shut down the well in November 2021 and the news of a nonprofit, tied to the owner of a nearby luxury resort, intending to purchase the mine— have locals discussing whether or not relying on the mine’s well is a viable long-term solution.

A lengthy boil water notice in the town has also contributed to the uncertainty, though there has apparently been some confusion among local officials as to how long the notice has been in effect.

According to state regulators and the mine company, a subsidiary of Canada-based Aurcana Corporation, the current boil water notice has been in effect continuously since the 2021 pump house fire. But Portillo said his understanding was that an initial boil water notice was issued immediately after the fire, eventually expired, and then a newer notice was issued four to five months ago.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality confirmed that its records still showed an active boil water notice that began in November 2021, but the agency noted that such records are based on “self-reported data” and questions on specific boil water notices “need to be addressed by the public water system.”

As the Big Bend Sentinel has reported, Shafter residents are currently discussing the prospect of forming their own water supply corporation.

Locals are planning a town-wide vote on the matter on Feb. 21, said Martha Stafford, one of the effort’s organizers.

“We want all Shafter residents and property owners to be there to vote,” she said. “Depending on the results of that, we’ll move forward.”

Stafford, who grew up in Marfa but moved to Shafter in 2017, said she hasn’t used the town’s water for drinking since she’s lived there, though she does still use it for things like cleaning and bathing. A boil water notice doesn’t inherently mean the water is unsafe to drink, but rather that conditions within the local water system can’t guarantee the safety of the water without boiling.

“I put it through a Brita filter,” said Troy Rinehart, Care and Maintenance Supervisor at the local silver mine.

Rinehart oversees the town’s drinking water well. He said the boil water notice remains in effect for the town primarily because the 2021 fire damaged a chlorinator at the well’s pump house that has yet to be replaced.

Still, he said regular testing of the water quality hasn’t raised major concerns.

“Our samples are pristine, I will say that,” he said. “Even without chlorine, we have excellent water in Shafter.”

Rinehart said the pump house hasn’t been repaired yet because a crew tapped to work on it hasn’t been available to visit the site yet.

“I’m in line waiting for the well service to make it out there,” he said. “We’re in the process.”

In an email, Aurcana CEO Kevin Drover said the mine company currently has no plans to stop providing water to Shafter residents free of charge.

Drover has also repeatedly downplayed local discussions of the mine potentially being sold, first describing the notion as “rumors” in September. Drover said this week that Aurcana has “not received any formal offers to purchase the Shafter Mine asset.”

Regardless, local officials have indicated that the time is right to reconsider the future of the town’s water supply. Presidio County is in the process of applying for more than $12 million in water infrastructure funding from the state, a mix of grants and loans that could be put toward a new and more robust Shafter-run water system.

“The way it is, we have pipes just laying over fences and stuff,” Stafford said. “So when somebody gets a leak, they just go out and fix it on their own.”

“That system loses a lot of water,” said Trey Gerfers, General Manager of the Presidio County Groundwater District. “The water’s free, so there’s really no incentive to fix the leaks, unless it leaks so bad the water’s not reaching the residence.”

Gerfers said he hopes the state will ultimately approve the county’s funding request in the coming months. If Shafter residents do start their own water corporation, he said, the town should look to Redford’s locally run water system as a guide.

“Their users are happy and pay the rates regularly,” he said. “If you go to the state and you’re asking for advice, they don’t know the conditions out here, they don’t understand.”

Stafford said she has reservations about the town starting its own water system - namely, the prospect of “a bunch of old people fixing it” if something breaks - but she doesn’t think the town should assume the mine will always be in a financial position to deal with something like another fire at the pump house.

“It’s definitely not like Flint, Michigan” at the moment, Stafford said. “We just want to be proactive so we don’t ever get to that day.”

Rinehart, the mine employee, said he had no problem with the community going its own way, noting that the mine has funneled tens of thousands of dollars into operating the well each year.

“We’ll save over $2,000 a month,” he said. “There’s no downside for us.”

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.